On Rereading Books
― Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly
Once again I have found an inspiring Lit Life column by Julia Keller. In Sunday's Chicago Tribune she noted the new novel by Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery, and while a new novel by the distinguished author Eco is always worth noting she turned to comment on the "powerful urge to reread two of Eco's works: "The Name of the Rose" (1980), a love letter to a library cleverly disguised as a murder mystery, and "Foucault's Pendulum" (1988), which, with its labyrinthine plot and echo chamber of conspiratorial whisperings, serves as a sort of dry run for some of the ideas in "The Prague Cemetery."" This urge leads her to discussion of the emotions engendered in readers everywhere by the tug of war between books yet unread and the richness of those great and not so great books that we remember fondly from our first and perhaps precious previous rereadings.
This is a war that must go on in the heads of many readers, I know that I have experienced some of the same feelings described by Ms. Keller in her essay. Why forgo a new work by a young but creative author for yet one more read of a classic or a favorite? She suggests that Eco understands this dilemma based on his oeuvre and his comments in a recent work, "Confessions of a Young Novelist" that notes the contradictions raised by novelists who present life with all of its inconsistencies and want "to stage a series of contradictions." In response Ms. Keller asks the question whether rereading is merely repeating oneself.
In response I would turn to my own experience and say that rereading may be merely repeating oneself; but it does not have to be merely that - for then it would be a contradiction of the joy and wonder and benefits of reading. If, however you learn from your rereading, much as the philosopher Santayana suggests that one should learn from history, you can put that learning to good use in the exploration and enjoyment of new reading. For example, there is a literary tradition that exerts its influence on contemporary writers just as it has on writers over the centuries. Robert Alter, in "The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age" (1989), identifies this cohesiveness as a "powerful impulse of self-recapitulation". I have found rereading, especially those powerful foundational texts, increases ones ability to recognize the cohesiveness of the literary tradition when it inevitably pops up in contemporary novels. Eco himself, in yet another of his many works "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods" (1994), observes that, "In a narrative text, the reader is forced to make choices all the time." I would further suggest that rereading texts helps the reader in making those choices when faced with new and different responses of writers to the challenge of creating a novel and presenting new contradictions.
The excitement of reading is multiplied for every reader by each of our unique experiences. Rereading familiar and not so familiar texts can be a catalyst to help increase the excitement as we experience new and unfamiliar novelistic worlds. This excitement - rereading books - begs the question of why read at all, and no one has answered that question better than Marcel Proust:
"It seemed to me that they would not be 'my' readers but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers -- it would be my book but with it I would furnish them the means of reading what lay inside themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether 'it really is like that.' I should ask whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written."*
* from In Search of Lost Time, quoted in Why Read? by Mark Edmundson (Bloomsbury, 2004), pp. 3-4.